Ethiopian Jewry and the Jews of Gondar

 

Early History

The ‘Beta Israel’ – as the Jews of Ethiopia refer to themselves – have lived in Ethiopia for many centuries, but their origins are uncertain. Some hold to the tradition that they are descended from the lost tribe of Dan. The medieval Christian chronicle, the Kebra Negast, tells of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba having a son called Menelik, who grew up in Ethiopia but went to visit his father in the Land of Israel and returned home accompanied by a group of Israelite soldiers who settled in Ethiopia. Modern academics are divided in their explanations: some think that Jewish tribes from Arabia migrated across the Red Sea to Ethiopia, others have proposed that Jewish influence travelled down the Nile from Egypt.  Either way, it is likely that Judaism was established there before the end of the 1st century CE, probably before the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, and almost certainly before the conversionn of Ethiopia to Christianity in the 4th Century. 

The remains of a palace that is reputed to be associated with the  Queen of Sheba

The Beta Israel settled in the Northern part of Ethiopia, particularly in the Simien mountains, and around Lake Tana. There were periods when an independent Jewish kingdom held out against Christian emperors, but in the 15th century the Beta Israel were soundly defeated by the emperor Susneyos and  from then on they became a lower-status minority in the Christian empire.  This was mitigated when the capital moved to Gondar in 1636.  Gondar was in the Jewish heartland and offered new employment opportunities with the court which were enthusiastically taken up, especially as the Beta Israel at that time were allowed only limited access to farmland.  From that time Gondar became the key town of the Beta Israel, who were building a reputation for metalwork and other crafts. 

 

In the eighteenth century there was continual civil conflict leading to the economic decline of the regime, and this had a disproportionate impact on the Beta Israel, dependent as they were on a wealthy class to employ them.  The early nineteenth century saw contact between European Christian missionaries and explorers and the Beta Israel, and from about 1850 European Jews made contact and began to record some of their cultural and religious practices.  The next hundred years continued these contacts in a sporadic manner and the condition of the Beta Israel worsened in the face of regular famines and conflict. During this time some converted to Christianity and came to be known as the Zera Israel, or Falash Mura, of which more below.

 This Magen David is carved into one of the rock churches in Lalibela

The Beta Israel and the State of Israel

In the early 1950s the Jewish Agency started work there and supported the establishment of schools.  A debate about the status of the Beta Israel began which culminated in 1975 when the Israeli Ministry of the Interior decreed that the Beta Israel were Jews and had automatic citizenship and the right of Aliyah.  From that time small numbers of Beta Israel did indeed get to Israel but there were many obstacles, not least their poverty.

 

At this time the Ethiopian Marxist-Leninist regime was becoming increasingly harsh on minorities.  This, and the famines of the early 1980's led many Beta Israel to escape to refugee camps in the Sudan.   Their  plight led the Israeli government to look for ways to bring them out which culminated in the secret airlift of 8,000 Beta Israel from Sudan in 1984 ( Operation Moses).  They were then followed by an airlilft of 14,000 more during the civil war in 1991 from Addis Ababa (Operation Solomon).  Since then, there has been a continuing process enabling small numbers of Beta Israel to make Aliyah overseen by the Jewish Agency.  At the end of 2013 there were 135,000 Ethiopian Jews in Israel, including about 50,000 born there.

Beta and Zera Israel

The Beta Israel are officially defined as those who have continued to practice Judaism without a break and who are descended from Jews.  It is likely that all these are in fact now in Israel.  The remaining practising Jews, who live for the most part in Gondar, are descendants of the Zera Israel whose ancestors converted to Christianity under duress but who have since returned  to Judaism.  Many of them are closely related to Beta Israel families.  A number of these were taken in the two main airlifts.

 

The Zera Israel are not elibigle to go to Israel through the Law of Return which applies to recognised Jews, but they are allowed to come to Israel under the Law of Entry designed for non-Jews applying for Israeli citizenship. This requires the Zera Israel to spend a year in an absorption centre in Israel to learn Hebrew and mainstream Judaism. They would then undergo a token conversion and receive Israeli citizenship. However, emigration was only offered to those Zera Israel who could prove Jewish descent through the mother – even though in Ethiopia Judaism traditionally passed down through the father. They are also eligible if they have close family already in Israel. 

Over 5,000 practicing patrilineal Jews who moved to Gondar Town in order to apply for emigration through the Jewish Agency have been unable to qualify and are still there.   They were supported by NACOEJ (North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry) until 2008 when they stopped operations in Ethiopia, and then by the Jewish Agency. The main Aliyah process ended in August 2013 and the Jewish Agency also withdrew its support for the synagogue and the school. The medical programmes and feeding facilities were also closed. Many of the remaining Jewish community in Gondar now live below the poverty line. They became used to support for their families and food and education for their children, but are now being left without any assistance.   

In November 2015, Israel  agreed to take 9000 of the Jews remaining in Ethiopia.  Our work is needed more than ever to improve skills and education so that the community can  make the best of life in Israel when they settle there.  Click here to see more details. 

After a long debate on the Knesset in August 2016, the Israeli government approved a budget to enable 1300 Jews to come to Israel.  They plan to allow about 100 people per month to make aliyah, starting in November 2016, so it will be the end of 2017 before the last person leaves.  There is no clear idea of what will happen to the other 7,700 individuals that remain from the promised 9,000 who were to come. Meanwhile, others of Jewish descent continue to move from the villages into Gondar and join the Gondar Jewish community.  They are not on the Israeli government list, and are unlikely to be able to ever make aliyah.  It looks like there will always be Jews in Gondar who need our support.   Meketa is helping this community through improving education and employment opportunities. 

Jewish Practices and Traditions

The community celebrate Jewish festivals according to the Ethiopian Calendar.    Our Trustee, Avi Bram, was in Gondar this September.  He saw the sheep market doing a roaring trade to celebrate 11th of September, the Ethiopian New Year  and 12th September,  Eid al-Adha, the Muslim celebration.  The Jewish community was also preparing to celebrate Rosh Hashana by blowing the shofar every day.  Each family  receives a gift of teff (the local grain used to make enjera) from the Synagogue. 

 

Rabbi Waldman  helps the community celebrate Jewish festivals.  He regularly comes to Gondar from Israel to lead services for Pesach and the High Holidays.   He also gives a regular Sunday talk to the community over a phone link, and trains the hazanim and Jewish studies teachers. 

Click here to read about how matzot is made in Ethiopia.  Click here to glance at life in Gondar.

Latest News 

Most girls in the Gondar Jewish community tend to stay at home and miss school during some of the days of their monthly cycle.   They could fall behind with their schooling and struggle to keep up with the class. We have linked up with the Days4girls project to provide girls with re-usable feminine hygiene kits. Seven kits were sent in time for International Women's Day.

We started a new club in Shewa Dabo – an area further out in Gondar where many of the Jewish families have moved to because the housing is much cheaper.  Click here to find out more about it 

Our programme, LIFT, gives direct support to elderly and infirm members of the community living in poverty.  Learn more about it here.

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Contact Details: Meketa, 10 Camley  Park Drive,  Maidenhead Berkshire  SL6  6QF  E-mail: projects@meketa.org.uk   Phone: +44 (0)7526 189352